Upon graduation from college almost five years ago, I noticed a common trend among entry-level job descriptions for which I was applying: public relations agency experience was preferred and sometimes even required. I had held a number of jobs and internships in the industry throughout my college career, but none were with an agency. I didn’t understand why working at an agency was put on a pedestal, but I knew that getting that experience would be an important step in my career.
After working in marketing for a couple of years, I decided to make the switch to agency PR. I found that agency life posed its own unique challenges, and new professionals should learn to expect a few commonalities among agencies when attaining the gold standard of PR experience.
Learn to juggle
The ability to multitask is not only crucial, but it is at the crux of your job. While some larger agencies may have individuals working on just one client account, many agencies will have a team dedicated to a handful of clients. These clients may all be in the same industry, such as consumer products or health care, or they may run the gamut of industries. New professionals in agencies will have to quickly learn their clients’ businesses, products and services inside and out. You must become an expert in each of these industries so you can communicate effectively and in an educated way.
One of the biggest differences between agency and corporate communications is how you prioritize. At an agency, you can’t prioritize one client over another. They all need equal attention, and if your five clients each have a last-minute project at 5 p.m. on a Friday, the work needs to get done for all five clients. At a corporation, you may have the flexibility to prioritize one project over another—not so at an agency. Be prepared for long hours, but great client relationships and invaluable experience as a result.
Learn to accept every opportunity
I now realize why agency experience is preferred by many employers, having lived agency life. New professionals will gain experience in almost every PR task—building media lists, media monitoring, pitching reporters, drafting press releases, managing social media accounts and creating PR plans. Nothing is off limits for an entry-level PR professional.
Take advantage of this opportunity. While it might seem overwhelming at first to try to master everything an agency has to offer, doing is the best way of learning. When I first started, I would volunteer to tag along on a Saturday morning to a radio station to observe a client interview or come up with pitch ideas from breaking news. In a year and a half, there aren’t many skills I haven’t attempted to master. Not only do you build your skill set, but you become the go-to person on the team when questions arise—no longer just a worker bee, but an invaluable member of the team.
Learn to speak up
When I first started at my agency, I was apprehensive to speak up. Not only did I feel like the new kid in a room of PR experts, but I wasn’t sure how the hierarchy would play out in an agency. I learned that not only was sharing ideas encouraged, it was expected! Don’t expect to be making copies forever. Agencies want to see their staff grow into strategic thinkers and creative minds. Senior leaders like new professionals who take initiative and share their ideas, whether it’s for a client project or proposing a more efficient way to get the work done.
It’s also extremely important to keep your career goals in mind. Don’t keep it a secret if there is a specific project on which you want to work. Not only does asking for specific projects show passion, but it allows you to share your unique interests and skills. Just because you are a new professional doesn’t mean you have nothing to bring to the table. Since my prior position was in marketing, I had experience in redesigning websites. When one of our clients was looking to redesign their website, I jumped at the chance to not only use my past experience, but also lead a project I really enjoyed. I now have two company website redesigns under my belt and a happy client.
Maybe you are a passionate Pinner and can launch a client Pinterest page, or maybe you love to write and a press release needs to be prepared. Don’t be shy in asking for what you want!
While switching to an agency was overwhelming at first, the experience has had so much to offer. If you take advantage of the wealth of opportunities agencies offer, you can build an amazing foundation for the rest of your PR career. What other advice would you give new pros heading for agency life? What was the biggest lesson you learned?
Heather Sliwinski is an account executive at KemperLesnik, a Chicago-based public relations agency, providing media relations and social media services to a variety of B2B clients. Previously, she held positions in marketing and event planning for corporations, nonprofits and higher education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications with an emphasis in strategic communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sliwinski is the blog co-chair and chair-elect for the PRSA New Professionals Section. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.